Over the past several months I have begun do dabble in the Linux world. I have installed Fedora, Ubuntu and Mint (my favorite) on an old laptop which really brought it back from the dead. I have set up my desktop to dual-boot Windows Vista and Ubuntu which, besides being a fun learning experience, has opened the door to a wide variety of applications while still allowing me to seamlessly sync my Zune (Yes, I actually have one of those). As with most things in my life, once I become interested in it, I start listening to podcasts about it so that I can then become completely obsessed with it. One of my favorite podcasts on the subject recently held an open ballot on the question, "Is Linux Marxist or Capitalist?"
Most responses were of the inane line of thought describing it as some sort of mix between the two. Some seemed to think it was an ultra-groovy, though imperfect form or example of communism, while a few less muddle-headed listeners realized that the operating system and the community that surrounds it were not inconsistent with capitalism. This last perspective lights upon the first relevant insight on the subject - that the question is slightly ill posed. An operating system and it's supporting community cannot very well be said to conform to a particular ideology. We will instead attempt to answer whether Linux is consistent with a capitalist society or a communist one.
As anyone who has written about the subject of capitalism vs. communism has doubtless learned, it is impossible to unwrap the various definitions everyone has in their minds of these two political systems. Thus, while I know that I will be scolded for it later on, I choose to provide my own simple, rule-based definition of the two. I define capitalism as a social system in which all individuals are free to own property. Similarly, I define communism as a social system in which individuals are excluded from owning property by the state. The characteristics that emerge in societies based on these respective rules such as wage labor, capital accumulation, competitive markets, profits, class structure and lack thereof are irrelevant and tend to distract from the core principle and nature of each system.
The relevant question then becomes, "Is Linux owned by any state which in turn claims to confer communal ownership to each of its subjects?" Clearly this is not that the case. Linux, in all of its manifestations, was freely given by all of its many contributors who had the choice along the way to either not participate or to keep their contributions proprietary. This is not inconsistent with a social system of people free to own property and is thus not inconsistent with capitalism. Capitalism does not require all facets of human life to be driven by the profit motive. Giving money to the Salvation Army, birthday socks to your nephew, hugs to your children and sensual massages to your significant other(s) are not acts of communist revolution. Neither is contributing your time and expertise to a free software community.
A better analogy to communism would be forcefully nationalizing Microsoft and Dell, distributing their products for free, and "'lawfully" eliminating all competition. This is because the defining characteristic of communism is force. Contrary to the Utopian ramblings of Marxists everywhere, communism is not about giving; it is about taking!